I grew up on the bounty provided by the waters of Bristol Bay. My son, who is a crewman for me, is a fifth-generation Bristol Bay fisherman. I continue to make part of my living as a commercial fisherman in the Bay. Our season just finished and as a recent commentary noted, we waited anxiously to see what kind of a season 2015 would produce. It started slow and closed with quite a bang. Unfortunately for many of us, the price we will get for our salmon is likely not anywhere near what we've been compensated the last several years. It's simply the nature of the business.
As an Alaska Native and a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, the end of the season and the potential visit by President Barack Obama leads me to a few observations about current issues. I am concerned about the future of the region and likely not in the way you might expect.
Our region does OK, but we face many challenges. This year many who remain connected to my home village learned the final remaining fish plant will close and the facility will be shuttered due to perpetually high operating costs. Many believe this is a potential death blow to the future existence of a place I continue to call "home."
I've read about the 14,000 jobs associated with the fishery. but conclude many are not "living-wage" jobs. They supplement other income. That's how it is for me. I live in Anchorage so I can work when I'm not fishing. It's how my family makes ends meet. It's how I, and many in my family have lived throughout the duration of our existence.
Drift permits owned by locals continue to decline with no offense to my fishing colleagues from Washington, Oregon and other states. I personally know many families from the region who have had to sell their permits to make ends meet, or even just to keep their homes.
I worry what all of this means for the future of Bristol Bay. Villages are seeing their populations decline, local businesses are closing as people move to hub communities or on to Anchorage and Wasilla in search of jobs. This leads to a decline in local school populations which often places a school at risk for closure if they don't achieve the required minimum of 10 students to receive state funding. In the Lake and Peninsula Borough, five schools have closed in the last 10 years and several remain on the bubble every year at risk of closing. For those unfamiliar with village life, the school is often the center of the village, a hive of activity, and many times serves as an important community gathering place. It's the heart of many villages, and it is tough to regain what is lost when a local school closes.
As we look to the future, we must maintain an open mind about all options in front of us. And, yes, this includes evaluating the benefits and risks of a mine at Pebble. Some will tell you this information has already been done by the EPA, but the news seems to change daily as to what the EPA really did or did not do. It's now being fully reviewed in court with the EPA's efforts put on hold until issues can be resolved. I happen to be a strong supporter of the full environmental review process under National Environmental Policy Act to thoroughly review projects like Pebble. In fact, all Alaskans have counted on that process and government-to-government consultations that happen under NEPA review for all forms of natural resource development.
I know some will label me a Pebble cheerleader. I've grown used to it and my skin is thick. I support salmon and clean water like all Alaskans. I want to see a sustainable future for my region. Salmon puts food on many plates and does provide a sustainable economic engine for some. The challenge we have is that the economic indicators are not as rosy as some would like you to believe.
I'm glad Obama is visiting Alaska. If he decides to visit Dillingham on his trip, it is my hope he will visit other parts of the region to get a more complete picture of what the economy is truly like in Bristol Bay.
Brad Angasan is a lifelong Bristol Bay commercial fisherman originally from South Naknek. He now lives in Anchorage.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.